WFTB Score: 12/20
The plot: Turning once again to 1955’s Doc Brown to get him back to his proper time, Marty McFly stumbles upon a gravestone which indicates that tragedy befell the older Doc in 1885. Arriving in the past, Marty sets about righting the wrong but quickly falls foul of Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen, the very man out for retribution against the scientist-turned-blacksmith. Emmett, meanwhile, meets prim teacher Clara Clayton and discovers that no amount of scientific experimentation can compare with the sensation of love at first sight.
So, where were we? Ah yes. Marty (Michael J. Fox) is stranded in 1955, ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) having flown off in the DeLorean, its fried time circuits taking him back to 1885. He’s written to say he’s perfectly happy in the 19th Century and maps a way for Marty and his somewhat stunned 1955 self to both find and mend the time machine; however, in finding the car Marty also finds a gravestone bearing Emmett’s name. Research shows that Doc was shot by Buford Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) not long after writing his letter, so instead of going ‘home’ Marty travels to 1885’s Hill Valley to save Doc’s life, narrowly avoiding losing his own to Indians, an unfriendly bear and – thanks to Emmett’s intervention – the thoroughly mean ‘Mad Dog’.
Modestly adopting the name Clint Eastwood, Marty works with Doc on repairing the stricken DeLorean to get back to 1985, though Emmett is distracted when lovely teacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) dramatically enters his life. The pair share a love of science which quickly blossoms into a love for each other; but with Buford still after Marty and Doc’s blood, hadn’t they better get the heck out of town? On the other hand, Marty has never been one to chicken out of a confrontation.
Though it eventually came good, Back to the Future Part II proved that Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale were on much surer ground delving into the past than when they tried to imagine the future. Part III provides further proof of this, skilfully creating a Western-era Hill Valley and telling a story which is both better paced and more assured than its predecessor. The thrust of the tale – getting Marty ‘back to the future’ – is inescapably a re-tread of the original movie, but the film quickly sets up the characters in the late 19th Century and immediately feels as though it knows where it’s going.
Fox is his usual, likeable self and Wilson, unrecognisable under his hat, facial hair and grimy make-up, is quite brilliant, as good here as he was ordinary in Part II. It’s also nice to see returning actors such as James Tolkan as Marshall Strickland and Lea Thompson playing opposite Fox as Marty’s great-great-grandparents Maggie and Seamus – though Thompson’s Oirish accent is a horror (I may be in the minority, but I thought Fox’s was okay). Essentially, however, Part III is Christopher Lloyd’s movie. Doc’s sudden love affair with Clara (played sweetly by the also excellent Steenburgen) gives the film a strong emotional heart, and the viewer feels Brown’s pain as he has to tear himself away from her in order to preserve his own life.
The love story adds to our connection with the characters and sits very nicely alongside the gripping action sequences (Marty’s put in real peril) and effective jokes, for example the ungainly valves attached to the DeLorean to replace the not-yet-invented microchip, the unexpected appearance of ZZ Top, or the undertaker measuring Marty up for a coffin (though this is surely nicked from Carry On Cowboy).
Not everything about the film is so successful. It’s not worth going through all the paradoxes thrown up by the plot, but the ‘Clayton Ravine’ one in particular doesn’t quite sit right: if Clara was destined to die until she was saved by Doc, and Doc only saved her because he was with the freshly-arrived Marty, how could she have been named on Brown’s tombstone? Explanations are available elsewhere, though I don’t really like any of them.
Furthermore, Zemeckis has a tendency to go too far: Emmett’s Heath Robinsonesque inventions are a treat, but the colour-coded logs which give the handsome locomotive a boost (and coloured smoke!) during the climax are a silly touch. He also – spoilers ahead – messes up the wrap-up: with Marty back in 1985 and the DeLorean smashed to smithereens, there’s a touching sense of finality, Marty facing the rest of his life with Jennifer and a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, Doc Brown staying in the past to live in glorious happiness with Clara, the twain destined never to meet again. Not only is the mood spoiled by leftover business from Part II – Jennifer’s fax from 2015 and Marty’s allergic reaction to allegations of cowardice – but the writers had to have a last hurrah, an expensive, overblown and redundant bit of foolishness which suggests that we as viewers weren’t trusted to imagine a sufficiently happy ending on our own. Why not just fade on the touching and entirely appropriate photograph of Marty and Doc posing either side of the Hill Valley clock?
So, in the end, Back to the Future Part III jumps the shark. Before then, there’s more than an hour and a half of top-notch entertainment which easily betters Part II without ever threatening to outshine the original. Even without the weight of affection of Back to the Future behind it, this movie would be a substantial and satisfying twist on the Western genre: with it, it’s a fond farewell to good friends.